‘Not good enough’: Defence Force staff left stranded in Antarctica for a month

A series of aircraft breakdowns and bad weather left 12 Defence Force staff stranded in Antarctica for a month with a rapidly closing window to get out before winter.

Crew on a Hercules aircraft finally managed to fly them home on 17 April as part of a medical evacuation for an American at McMurdo Station.

That was four weeks after they were supposed to leave.

ACT Party Defence spokesperson Mark Cameron said if it had not been for that flight they would have been stuck there even longer.

Over the summer season, more than 200 Defence Force personnel were involved in Operation Antarctica working in various teams providing crucial logistics and maintenance support to Antarctica, New Zealand and the United States teams.

The Defence Force said some of the deployments for the Scott Base Support team were in stints of about six months, and personnel spent most of their time on the ice.

A deployment to Antarctica included different experiences from learning to survive in temperatures as low as -40C, to exploring the environment.

ACT Party member Mark Cameron

The Summer season was supposed to end in March with the remaining 12 personnel due to return 18 March, but that was not able to happen and they were stuck.

The Defence Force said numerous weather delays and aircraft availability constraints prevented their return.

“Flight operations to Antarctica are complex and require careful consideration of runway state, weather, daylight windows and even solar flare activity that can disrupt communications.

“As such, there are often extended periods when aircraft are unable to safely get to Antarctica.”

It could be particularly difficult during the spring and autumn equinox periods when the rapidly changing weather, coupled with diminishing daylight windows, caused more flight cancellations, it said.

Aircraft limitations and availability were also to blame for the delayed return.

NZDF said the Boeing 757’s last safe day to fly to Antarctica was 22 March – just four days after the deployment was supposed to end.

An unsuccessful attempt was made on this day.

The Hercules, which the team eventually managed to hitch a ride on, had a longer window of travel to Antarctica – but was not known for being reliable.

Crew on a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) C-130H (NZ) Hercules conducted a medical evacuation (medevac) from Antarctica, a challenging mission given a rapidly closing window of daylight in April 2024.

It had failed to transport the prime minister at times and often broke down.

The Defence Force had also struggled with critical staff shortages, supply chain delays for aircraft parts and some were just becoming obsolete.

All of these factors made it increasingly difficult for things to line up – leaving the team stranded for another four weeks.

In 2021, the Hercules did manage to safely conduct a winter flight for a medical evacuation using night vision goggles to land.

At the time, RNZAF Base Auckland commander group captain Andy Scott said: “Flying to Antarctica is one of the highest risk missions we fly due to the lack of divert airfields and inability to get down and back without refuelling.

“The crews therefore are highly trained to analyse the situation with regards to the weather and the airfield state before making a decision to proceed.

“Flying in winter presents even more challenges due to the extreme cold, the rapidly changing weather and little to no visual warnings of the changes you would ‘see’ in summer.”

ACT Party’s Cameron said he was in contact with the team in Antarctica and said the whole situation was very difficult for those on the ground.

He said they worried that if there had not been a medical emergency, they might not have got out when they did.

They may have been stranded for longer in an isolated research station, separated from loved ones, with plummeting temperatures and no certainty about when or how they would get home.

On top of that, Cameron said the team felt largely abandoned and was concerned by the extremely poor communications.

On multiple occasions, Cameron claimed they would make the lengthy trip to the airstrip, only to be told to turn around and head back to the station.

It was a “farcical series of aircraft breakdowns and delays blamed on the weather”, he said.

Cameron said when they did get home, there was not so much as a “sorry” or “thank you” for waiting, while their families were also living in limbo.

“We ought to give greater respect to the sacrifices made by the men and women we send to the ends of the Earth,” Cameron said.

“This should mean sorting out some decent kit for our personnel and planes that actually fly.

“[It’s] not good enough.”

The return of the team marked the end of the Antarctica season for NZDF.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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